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Olympics News: Olympic torchbearers rely on torch's driver

-Kera Ritter

 

01/02/02

 

While each Olympic torchbearer carried the flame for two-tenths of a mile yesterday, Mark Claussner carried it for 174 miles without breaking a sweat.

 

Claussner keeps the flame alive between stops in America's cities and towns on the CATT, Chevy Avalanche Torch Truck. The flame hitches a ride in a cauldron on the back of the 2002 Avalanche, a one-of-a-kind version, according to Claussner.

 

Even at speeds of 70 mph, the flame remains lit, powered by a propane tank. The flame burns at about 2,000 degrees and can withstand rain, sleet, snow, ice and temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees.

 

But don't ask Claussner for details about how it works. "It's classified," he said.

 

As a matter of fact, Claussner is one of only five people allowed to drive the truck during the flame's 65-day journey from Atlanta to Salt Lake City. General Motors selects who sits behind the wheel and who sits in the passenger seat.

 

"If my own mother wanted to ride, she couldn't go," Claussner said.

 

Driving the torch truck is serious business. Claussner carries two cell phones and listens to walkie-talkies for information about suspicious characters or other problems along the route. A security staff keeps a close watch on the caravan, but Claussner also has to be vigilant about his surroundings. He can immediately extinguish the flame if there's a safety or security threat.

 

"There've been people who tried to come out with water or a fire extinguisher," Claussner said, but never on his watch.

 

As he spoke, a man on roller blades with a backpack and a stick whizzed close by the caravan and the walkie-talkies crackled with a warning. Eventually the man turned away from the trucks and Claussner resumed waving to the crowds and shouting Happy New Year.

"Big torch, big torch," one kid yelled as he jumped up and down. Claussner responded by honking his horn and the crowd let out a roar.

 

"That always drives them wild," Claussner said.

 

Claussner has been driving the truck since Dec. 26. He took over for another driver in Manhattan as the Olympic caravan headed north into New England, then back to New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Most of the time, Claussner said, he had no idea where he was. He just followed the police escort.

 

While the spectators along the route change, the response to the flame is universal, Claussner said.

 

"Regardless of age, race, creed or sex, people are running and chasing the flame," he said. "You'll see a construction worker on the top of his pickup truck standing next to a guy who drives a Jag. Everybody is smiling and happy. Where in America can you go and see that all day?"

 

Claussner recalled two hefty, shirtless guys in Boston squeezing into their apartment window to wave at the Olympic caravan winding down their block. In Utica, N.Y., a swim team wearing Speedos braved freezing weather to catch a glimpse of the flame. And lone souls have stood on empty roads shouting "God Bless America" as Claussner and the crew roll by.

 

"You see the weirdest things in the morning," Claussner said. "People come out of their homes directly out of bed - no shoes, robe half on and obviously they haven't taken a look at themselves in the mirror."

 

When the caravan hits the highway for its next stop, heads turn.

 

"You'll look over and people [in cars] are trying to take pictures next to you and they have their hands off the steering wheel," Claussner said. "But it's a lot of fun. It's like driving in a parade across America."